Sunday, February 26, 2006

Critiquing Horowitz's Critics

Though I did a satire piece on David Horowitz's 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, I've been a bit put off by a lot of the criticism of his list. Nearly all of the critiques I've seen in the academic blogosphere have been disingenuous, including those from bloggers whom I generally like. I'll not include links here because I don't wish to make this an attack on those people, but rather on the ideas they present, but it won't take but a few minutes of surfing to see the kind of critiques I'm talking about. The dishonest critiques are the ones that protest that professors don't have much influence anyway, and only someone deranged/paranoid/demagogic would think otherwise.

First off, let's start with the caveats. This post is not intended to be a defense of Horowitz's book (which I've not read), nor or his list (because, as the satire suggested, I think the idea of such a list is pretty funny in that VH1 top-100-most-shocking-pop-culture-moments-from-the-Eighties kind of way). Those attackers of Horowitz whose exchanges with him end up on his website should realize that those sorts of attacks don't weaken his argument; they strengthen it by example. Furthermore, is he wrong to say that the people on that list are dangerous? I don't know all of the people on the list, but of those about whom I do know, a great number frequently behave badly.

I think the academic blogosphere has tacitly acknowledged that Horowitz is right in his assessment of the professors on the list by failing to offer defenses of them. If there's a post out there offering arguements that these 101 academics don't behave badly, or that some small group of them do not and shouldn't be lumped in with the rest, I've missed it. Most of the posts have run along two lines: that Horowitz is an evil right-winger (and worst, a turncoat from solid left-wing credentials), and that he over-inflates the influence professors have. I'll ignore the first line of argument, since it is ad hominem at its roots and just offers more evidence in favor of Horowitz every time it is made; instead, I'll focus on the second.

There is something in the nature of academics that makes us presume we have influence where we do not, and presume we have no influence where we do. I'm guilty of this as well. Whenever people hear I'm a professor, they inevitably ask what I teach. My favorite joke (which my friends have heard too often) is to say, "Nothing. I don't teach because they don't learn."

But do I really believe that? Of course not. Let's take Frankie Freshman for example. Frankie comes to me straight out of high school, as ignorant as a moss-covered rock in the shady side of a quarry. His eyes are glazed over, his opinions drawn from Toby Keith or Jon Stewart, his view of the world extending about six inches past his nose. Now, four years later, Frankie Freshman has become Sammy Senior. Sammy Senior has a degree of intellectual development, a framework in which to integrate new knowledge, and a set of supported arguments where facile slogans once dwelt.

How did this transformation take place? Was it happenstance? Does it always happen in everyone as they age from 18 to 21, regardless of education? I don't think so. I think that I had some part to play in the transformation of Frankie, as did the other professors he met. In otherwords, not only do I think I had some influence over Frankie, I think that the influence I have is so great as to merit charging tuition.

Nor do I think I'm alone in this belief. Most professors know that we have a great deal of influence over our students, and the ability to shape their future beliefs and opinions. It is no conincidence that so many religious cults focus on recruiting college students; they are intellectually very receptive. Now, I often bemoan how little influence I have over students, and how apathetic they are, but I bemoan (and exaggerate) that precisely because my goal is to have as much influence as possible. Where influence is lacking, I have failed.

In fact, I submit that any professor who honestly believes the influence they have over their students to be nil has the responsibility to resign. If the belief is true, then they have failed utterly in one of their primary roles; if the belief is false, then by failing to recognize their influence they are unlikely to influence the students positively.

Unfortunately, professors often like to pretend that we have influence where we have none (because it allows us to posture), and that we have no influence where we have a lot (because it absolves us of responsibility). The result is the kind of absurd situation wherein the MLA is voting on issues of foreign policy (I'm sure Condoleezza Rice awaits her daily MLA briefing with great anticipation), but the members scoff at the idea that the students with whom they have daily contact and over whom they have great power might be influenced by them. We all know perfectly well that we can make fatuous pronouncements about foreign policy because no one cares what we will say, so there we will bear no direct responsibility for the policy outcomes (such as genocide, poverty, war, and all the other things that can result from ill-considered policies). On the other hand, we make those same pronouncements in the classroom because we know perfectly well that our opinions will be given some credence, either because the students fear retribution for dissent, or because they respect our opinions based upon their respect for us. When a student hears a professor ridicule ideas, they assume that the ideas are ridiculous, whether that assumption be fair or unfair.

So, what's my point here? Am I calling for the deification of Horowitz, or the mass-firing of the people on his list? Neither, of course. All I'm asking is that we acknowledge that we do have a great deal of influence over our students, and that we accept responsibility for the way that we use that influence.

Even my six-year-old son knows the Spider-man Principle: "With great power comes great responsibility." As academics, when we hear of someone abusing their power, is our first impulse to chatize them for abusing their power, or is it to defend their right to abuse their power under the banner of academic freedom? When it is the latter (and I am just as guilty as others of yielding to that impulse), shame on us.

There will be those who will argue that it is our responsibility to use our power to indoctrinate our students into our own worldview. While I disagree with that position, opting instead for a little more humility with regard to my own vulnerability to error, it is at least an honest position that acknowledges that we have influence and that we are responsible for how we use that influence. Of course, our humble recognition of our own propensity for error need not lead to a fear of ever saying anything; I freely confess that I try to indoctrinate my students into the love of medieval literature. I think that it should instead curb the force with which we use our power, so that we don't insist that students like everything we like or agree with every position we hold.

Ironically, I've found that students tend to have more respect for professors who gently guide them, and less for dogmatic bullies. Not surprisingly, it is the former who end up having the greater influence -- which is just as well, because they are using that influence carefully.


  1. Come on now, Nokes -- how do you REALLY feel?

    Have you seen Hitchcock's "Rope"?

  2. Dr. Nokes,

    As an as-yet-aspiring academic, with far more years of student behind me than teacher, I'll have to trust you on the topic of teacher's influence. I can say that my primary objection to Horowitz' list is that it gives the impression that only progressive professors behave badly in the classroom. In my experiences as a student, I've found that to be not even close to the truth. In fact, in my classes, I've had one openly progressive professor and four openly reactionary professors. To a man(deliberate use), the reactionary professors all cited "the liberals do it" as their excuse for behaving badly. The one liberal used about the same logic. For me, the assumption that all professors throw out the syllabus and lecture politics just adds to the numbers of people who will feel justified in behaving like shaved monkeys, all the while shouting "he started it" as a defense.

  3. Anonymous11:15 PM

    "If there's a post out there offering arguements that these 101 academics don't behave badly, or that some small group of them do not and shouldn't be lumped in with the rest, I've missed it."

    You know, it seems to me that it's much harder to defend yourself against a false accusation of "doing wrong" than it is to defend yourself against a false accusation that you're "not doing enough good." That make any sense?

    The latter can be easily defended against by offering up just one simple example, while the former requires one to offer up proof that they didn't do something which (if they're innocent) never happened in the first place. It's a pretty crappy position to put someone in.

  4. HeoCwath,

    I'm not trying to argue that only politically radical professors abuse their influence; of course, professors will use their influence (for good and for ill) all along the political spectrum, as well as in non-political arenas. Abuse of the trust placed in us can be political, but it can be religious, sexual, financial, etc. You're on the money when you suggest that excusing bad behavior because someone else behaved badly is no excuse at all.

    Cappy, I'm not really sure of your point. If you are suggesting that some of the people accused of bad behavior are innocent, that well may be true, and if so, Horowitz and his defenders should be called on it. If you are suggesting that all academics (or even just the 101 on Horowitz's list) are innocent of abusing their influence, well, we'll have to agree to disagree on that. I've seen too much first-hand (from both sides of the desk) to share in that assessment.

    Again, my point is not to defend Horowitz or his list, but rather to call on people to acknowledge that we *do* have influence over our students, and to remind people that we have a duty to be responsible in that influence. Of course, most faculty are careful, but when I read so many faculty mau-mauing that they don't really have any influence, it makes me fear that we might not be taking our responsibilities seriously enough.

    And, Chris, yes I've seen "Rope." The moral of the story: Teach Nietzche at your peril.

  5. Anonymous10:29 AM

    Defending all academics? Heavens to Betsy, no. Academics do have great responsibility -- any teacher does. I apologize for being vague.

    First of all, I haven't read his book, so I don't have any of the specific examples that Horowitz gave of a professor "acting badly" to make a judgement. However, I wouldn't doubt that one or two of the Professors that have made his list are abusers of power.

    What I was doing was just explaining my thoughts on why there hasn't been an outpouring of criticism against Horowitz by outraged academics -- the ones that are acting badly know they are (and will keep their traps shut), and the ones who he has falsely accused have no way to defend themselves, besides simply saying "nuh-uh."